Golin Harris boss on why ad agencies won’t win PR awards forever, Gen Y and why hacks fail as flacks

Jonathan HughesJonathan Hughes has been international president of PR agency Golin Harris for 18 months, but he moved to Hong Kong from London six months ago.

In this Q&A, Hughes talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about why most journalists fail as PRs, the fall of pan-Asian media and why he’d hire Malcolm Gladwell.

Why is it that PR still isn’t really taken seriously by the ad industry?
I don’t agree with that. PR is taken seriously by ad agencies, but there’s always this notion that it isn’t. It’s a bit like the false war between journalists and PR. It’s fun to talk about, but it doesn’t really exist.

Where we let ourselves down is not having the courage that ad agencies have when focusing a client on what they really need to do to move the needle. Many clients come to us and want to achieve multiple things, when we should be focusing on one thing.

Our ad cousins have always had the numbers to back these decisions up. And they have the confidence, sometimes bordering on arrogance, to say to clients, look, this is what we need to do. Sometimes we’re too subservient and service-oriented. We never want to say no. And sometimes because we don’t say no, we don’t achieve the right result for the client.

What’s the biggest story in PR at the moment?
The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity is in big data. Just look at what happened in Cannes. Ad agencies were winning the PR Lions. That’s down to the fact that – yes ad agencies come up with great creative ideas – but they have a stronger heritage in getting insights that make the creative element of what they do more focused.

They’ve always had the budgets to spend on field testing. They can afford to spend $10,000 on a piece of research, because their budgets are in the millions. For PR agencies the price of entry for data has been steep. So it’s been difficult to get the insights that lead to great creative ideas.

But now with big data, we have more access to information. We can use analytics to see in real time what is working and what isn’t – affordably. The playing field has been levelled.

Ad agencies have been better at putting together a flashy show reel. It used to be that a small 20-person PR agency would have to spend its entire marketing budget on a single awards entry video. Now anyone can knock up a biblically brilliant video.

The days when creative agencies win PR awards are numbered.

Why is PR work in Asia so poor creatively?
I don’t agree with that either. There is great stuff going on in this region. But the challenge for brands in Asia has been that creativity has been focused squarely on shifting a product. Only in the past five years, maybe ten, have brands started to flourish in this region.

What’s your favourite PR campaign?
Draftfcb’s dog adoption campaign for SPCA in New Zealand.

I like it because it’s simple. People have respectively made it out to be more grandiose than it was. At the heart of it was some research into why people didn’t want adopted dogs. People thought they were a bit unpredictable, can’t be trained and are stupid and unhinged. So they showed that they’re not any of those things by getting them to drive a car. I’m not sure how that creative leap happened, but the simple part was identifying that people needed to be convinced that dogs are smart.

The campaign went everywhere. And it was measurable – all the dogs were adopted.

Who’s the one person you respect the most in PR and why?
I try to look outside of our own industry for inspiration and for me Sir Alex Ferguson takes some beating. I don’t just mean because he’s won all the trophies and titles that he has. No. For me it’s how he has made that happen. How he built a team not just of players but of back room technicians, trainers, scouts and so on most of whom have been with him all the way. Together with his back-room team he has built squads of players that has not just made United into an extremely successful club but into global brand.

If you could hire anyone in Asia, who would it be?
Malcolm Gladwell. He’d be a great addition to our strategist community bringing his insights into human behaviour, group dynamics and key drivers along with his unending curiosity and a perpetual desire to challenge accepted wisdoms on how people think and make decisions.

Is there one publication that you always want to get your clients into?
We used to have clients who’d say that they’d always want to be in the FT [Financial Times] or The Sun [the British tabloid newspaper]. But no one asks us this anymore. The landscape has just become too fragmented. There’s no longer a single, over-reaching title. There is not really such a thing as a pan-Asian publication. It’s all about the local titles now. The umbrella effect has gone.

How do you intend to come out of the shadow of your much bigger IPG sister Weber Shandwick?
We’re not going out to out-Weber Weber Shandwick or out-Edelman Edelman. We’re never going to be as big as these guys. But we don’t need to be. I worked for Weber for five years. We cooperated and we also competed fiercely, like most sisters. But we do things differently and we do it on our terms. And as we roll out our g4 model [which favours specialists over generalists] and hire different sorts of people, we will be seen as offering something very different.

What’s the biggest mistake young people make when they come into the PR business?
I think it’s because young people coming into the business often want to do all the sexy creative and strategy stuff right away. They want to run before they can walk. They say, I know how to write copy, I did that for my degree. But they don’t realise you need the fundamentals before you get to that point. Often they’re asked to do insight research, and seem to view it as some a form of punishment. It’s not. They could be the one who delivers a beautiful insight after mining data and that builds into an amazing creative campaign.

Another mistake that I’ve seen more of in Asia is taking feedback personally. When receiving feedback, juniors need to look at it constructively. Feedback is about helping, guiding and moulding young people to be better.

Do journalists make good PRs?
In the old model I just mentioned, the answer is probably not. There are some I know who’ve made the transition, but the hit rate is 20-30 per cent. A good journalist is just so single minded. So focused on getting a story and filing copy. Then they’re brought into an environment where they have to justify their existence, fill in time sheets and so on. They’re wheeled out for pitches where they recount stories of meeting Tony Blair or whoever. But those things have a shelf life. You’d see many cases where a PR agency would make a high-profile journalist hire, then go very quiet some months later.

In the new model, instead of being bolted on to a team, they are part of what we call a connector community. They sit in a news environment surrounded by newspapers and TV screens and see if there is a way a client can be inserted into the discussion. If you’ve got a good ex-journalist, typically someone on the visual side in TV production or online, they’re able to see where story is going to go next. Then the account team goes off and does it. The days of trophy hires are over.


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